Future Ancestry Research — Are We Already Living in an Advanced Family History Simulation?

Technology, and particularly computing, is essential to family history. Without it, we could still tell family stories to our children, but we certainly couldn’t substantiate those stories from billions of historical records into millions of family trees, as web applications like FamilySearch and Ancestry.com do today.

In the 1960s, Intel co-founder Gordon Moore observed that the ratio of computing capacity to cost was doubling predictably, every couple years or faster. In other words, a computer built in 1969 had twice as much capacity as a computer built at the same cost in 1968, and over a hundred times as much capacity as a computer built at the same cost in 1962; a computer built in 1969 would also reliably have half the capacity of a computer built at the same cost in 1970, and less than a hundredth the capacity of a computer built at the same cost in 1976.

That trend, known as Moore’s Law, has continued to the present. Today, a $150 smartphone can store about a million times more data and process that data about a thousand times faster than the $150K Apollo Guidance Computer that took astronauts to the moon in 1969. The smartphone also has wireless access to extended computing capacity on the Internet, including powerful systems such as Google, Amazon, Facebook, Yahoo and eBay, as well as gigantic troves of family history data.

Suppose Moore’s Law continues. Within decades, whatever replaces smartphones would have millions, billions and then trillions of times the overall computing capacity at the same cost. Within a century, $150 would purchase more computing capacity than that of all human brains combined. If that were to happen, what might the intersection of family history and technology look like? What might FamilySearch or Ancestry.com be like? Of course we don’t really know, but let’s imagine.

One of the things we might do is tell stories about our family and ancestors at a much more massive scale and at a far deeper level, by computing highly detailed family history simulations. Maybe they would be something like a mix of Google Earth enhanced with a full history of maps derived from geological and astronomical research; Oculus Rift enhanced with brain-computer interfacing for an immersive tactile experience; and Second Life enhanced with avatars generated from family trees, photos, journals, and DNA, and abstracted to sub-neuronal degrees of detail to enable artificial intelligence. In deeper more meaningful ways, we could understand and even feel our family history, as the characters, settings, plots and conflicts unfold before us – as our stories come to life, and we walk in our ancestors’ shoes (literally?).

As it turns out, if ever we compute such family history simulations, detailed to the point of enabling the characters with fully immersive consciousness, there would be a rather shocking philosophical ramification.

Imagine a family history simulation sophisticated enough to enable the characters with artificial intelligence and full awareness and consciousness. If something like $150 could purchase more computing capacity than that of all human brains combined, we might run many thousands, millions, or more family history simulations, for education, entertainment, research and innumerable other purposes.

Now imagine further that you actually live in such a future. FamilyHistory.com version 42 has just been released, and all your friends are using it to run family history simulations. One day, while you and a friend are watching some of your ancestors, your friend turns to you and asks, “Are we living in a family history simulation?” You laugh of course, but your friend insists.

“Seriously! Are we living in a family history simulation? Think about it. FamilyHistory.com probably runs at least a million family history simulations. Each of them includes billions of artificial intelligences that, so far as I can tell, experience their world like we experience ours. That’s something like, oh, let’s just say eight quadrillion artificial intelligences. What are the chances that you and I happen to be among eight billion natural intelligences instead of eight quadrillion artificial intelligences? … one in a million, or less because that’s assuming a non-simulated world simulated the others. I’d say we’re almost certainly living in a family history simulation.”

Your friend would be right. If there are a large number of worlds verified to be inside family history simulations, and no worlds verified to be outside family history simulations (despite common assumptions about our own world), the laws of probability entail that any given world, including our own, is most likely to be inside a family history simulation, and worlds outside family history simulations are merely an improbable hypothesis. In other words, if we run many family history simulations, we probably already live in one. Fellow tech-philosophy fans should take a look at a formal development of this idea, known as the Simulation Argument.

Now this philosophical argument doesn’t purport to prove that we’re actually living in a family history simulation. It only purports to prove that at least one of two possibilities must be true: either (1) we will never compute many family history simulations to a degree of detail that enables characters with artificial intelligence and fully immersive consciousness, or (2) we probably already live in such a family history simulation. However, both possibilities present us with some challenges.

The first suggests various probabilistic or hard limits to our technological progress. Maybe we’re likely to destroy ourselves with powerful new weapons or succumb to natural global catastrophes before attaining the ability to run detailed family history simulations. Perhaps we’re destined for some form of totalitarian control that would stifle such innovations. It may even be the case that the complexity or nature of consciousness is such that completely immersing or embedding it in a simulation is impossible or progress toward it would be asymptotic – indefinitely progressing slower and slower while requiring more and more resources.

Of course, if the first possibility is not true then the second must be, and it entails that reality is not what most of us usually suppose it to be. So what do you think? Are we living in a family history simulation? Could and would we simulate our ancestors to the point of artificial intelligence and immersive consciousness?

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This article originally appeared in a somewhat different form on Lincoln’s blog here: http://lincoln.metacannon.net/2013/12/imagine-future-technology-for-family.html

And a somewhat different variation originally appeared on the Ancestry.com Tech Roots blog.